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Saving Doctor Who: Transience, Canon, and the Missing Episodes

A 16 MM film canister from "The Evil of the Daleks" (image from wikimedia).

A 16 MM film canister from “The Evil of the Daleks” (image from wikimedia).

Geekdom has spent much of this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, which is one of the most prominent and long-lasting of all popular cultural fandoms.  The impending regeneration of the 11th Doctor at year’s end and the November showing of Who’s 50th anniversary show have lent some elevated excitement to Who followers.  Yet perhaps the most interesting development in Who fandom is the search for lost Doctor Who programs destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s.  Television shows like Doctor Who were once destroyed as a standard practice, and the lost episodes have since become Who grail.

In an otherwise transient popular culture, Who fans hope to recover and breathe new complexity into an oeuvre that is already exceptionally complex.  For various fans, the missing episodes may harbor some new insights into one of television’s most deconstructed series; for many the search itself and the scholarship on the lost episodes is a central dimension of Who’s committed fandom.  The corporations seeking out the same episodes are eager to sustain fan interest in the missing programs (BBC had a “Treasure Hunt” program seeking lost shows), but corporate interests revolve around the profits such shows may harbor in a renewed lease on life as DVD’s and iTunes downloads.  That question of what is meaningful is actually quite similar to the skepticism often directed at scholarship (including archaeology) that seeks out, preserves, and celebrates apparently mundane everyday life. Read the rest of this entry